Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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Apart from your studies, what other things did the military academy mean for your life? What things did you do there? Could you describe life at the military academy?

Life in this institution was pretty stiff, pretty rigid. I mean that every 24 hours there was very little time wasted. I mean, there was so much time for sleeping, so much time for studying, so much time for sports, so much time for recreation and everything is controlled in every detail, so you got little room to escape, and I was at the military academy, for instance, in a period when there was a special type of compulsory study ... and they are the type that you can study outside, really two or three hours a day, whenever you have a chance to do so. And I made a certain break into the chemistry department where there was a certain kind of mineral, and I wanted to get some samples of that and to do that I broke certain original pieces for which ... I needed that for examination, and I was put in confinement. So there is not only a military camp but you have a special confinement, if necessary, [if] something goes wrong. So a military academy is a very total controlled surrounding that I think is very essential to create an orderly, say, man out of a youngster, a really rigid officer that I suppose is to me ... it has not been invented, must be old, just as mankind. I mean, the soldier's education has not changed very much in the last 2000 years.

What's the main object of it do you think, to toughen you up?

Well, definitely, there is no question of argument. In the military mentality, you are given an order and that order will take you right to the end ... if necessary, dying. I mean to me it was just normal, I don't see anything exceptional, so when I said that the people needed discipline, without going to the extent of military — it is a very essential element of education that so many people don't realise is ... that it is a pretty essential element for living an orderly life.

Of course, obedience and following authority was an important part of the fascist model as well. Did you sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the military line and the fascist one?

Well, to me, it was a question of making a distinction because I could receive orders from one source — that was the military. I didn't get much chance to listen or to obey the fascists, but in reality there was not much distinction of the two. So it was dictatorship in a way that you can see in paralleling ... many parts of the world today has got the same route.

Your father of course — he was a very authoritarian personality, from all accounts was anti-fascist, do you find that surprising?

Well, I think that that kind of contradictory element in my family, now I can see was just normal, because my father himself was a sort of total dictator in a way, but it was a different kind of dictatorship.

His dictatorship?

He was a dictator.

So in retrospect, looking back now, with the advantage of hindsight and being able to evaluate it, how do you feel about that fascist element that was there at the beginning? How do you put that into perspective from where you sit now?

Yes, I could see that if you are brought to a period, or in an atmosphere of persuasion or, if you like, brainwashing, you don't feel it, you don't feel that you are being brainwashed. You've got to go out, completely out of that process, to see the differential and to understand the value. Of course now if I could see that kind of atmosphere, I could see it as ridiculous — there are aspects of good humour — if we might say, but in reality these are the two aspects of life, the total of expression that sometime I can see around here, or in many other parts of the world, and the total negation of a personality. Now I think there must be a compromise in the two systems and I'm glad in a way that I'm in a type of surrounding where I can see the other part of the medal.

Do you see some values in that old system, in that system of authority, in a system that is really very strictly and tightly controlled such as fascism? Do you see some elements in that, that you see value in?

Oh definitely. I think that I have been lately in my trip in the Asian country, where there is really what I call a guided democracy, where there is a certain kind of freedom, I could tell, but in reality it is safe for that particular kind of people. I think it is essential to maintain some order with a certain amount of discipline. I don't believe that mankind would have survived the length if we just break down completely the relationship. I mean, there must be a certain amount of discipline, or law or order, otherwise there would be a convulsion. I think that, in a way, in proper perspective, I could see some sense in having certain order, some discipline, some law, some kind of authority to avoid the breaking down of the system.

So you thing that the Western democracy isn't always appropriate?

Well, we can see many problems in Western democracy and you can see what Clinton the other day was saying, that we have unfortunately two million unemployed. I think that the same kind of catchcry we have in Australia and the same is happening in Europe. So sooner or later they might be in a bit of a wrench ... [laughs] ...

What are the activities that went on at the military academy that you enjoyed? Did you learn any new skills or anything apart from your strict studies — like horse riding or fencing or any of those things? Could you describe the lighter part of it?

Well certainly, the aspect of professional culture, that is, the study of history, the study of weaponry, the study of tactics, of strategy, that's part of military aspect that is quite interesting, so the history of war, how the people are winning or losing, the essential, the movement of troops, soldiers, when the soldier was just, almost, an element of movement in a sort of chess board, that is quite interesting, because that has not changed very much. I suppose won't change in the next many, many years to come, so that is a very important study in the military academy. And the other one was the engineering aspect, that is, the science, construction, mathematics, all aspects of chemistry, physics, mechanics, that is, the basics of engineering — well to me has been also a very essential element of my education, that eventually I completed university, so that was just the beginning of what was my completion later on at university in Torino.

Later on in life, when you were building up a great business empire, did you find that the military strategic studies became useful?

Oh yes, I think these things come by instinct back again. Certainly part of the discipline, part of the theory of management that, by the way, has not been invented lately, I mean the Machiavelli was already speaking about management in the 1500s and the Vatican has been the greatest strategist of all, and this to me was very good lessons that I could draw on from many chapters of my study at the academy.

Do you learn to ride horses at the academy?

Of course, that was part of [it], horses, I've been very fond of horses, since my size, I was just a good jockey and I have been to some races in Torino, at Millefiori, so I was not only a good horse rider but also a good racing jockey.

Now after you finished military academy, war has already broken out for your country so you were able to utilise your studies in a practical way virtually immediately. Could you tell us how that happened and where you went?

Well, I felt that when the war was declared was part of my game, I mean, I had been working and studying for five years and therefore now is the time [to] do something. Altogether the idea of going to war and to be recognised and become a hero, get medals, is part of the mentality of a young officer, so I didn't see anything wrong for me to start getting active. At the time I was teaching communication and electronic at one of the military institutions in Torino and I did demand, I just demanded, to go to North Africa. As a matter of fact I could not have gone anywhere else. North Africa was the place for me and I became in charge of a company. So you see, automatically I felt that now is the time to put in operation what you learned or what was supposed to be your function.

So what did you do in North Africa?

Well North Africa ... I didn't have much time because things were getting pretty fast. I arrived in June 1941 and by November the same year there were already very [many] movements in North Africa. The Italian army had been pushed already back to Benghazi and there was another push toward Egypt and I was on the boundary between Egypt and Libya and ... I was supposed to be an expert in telecommunication, but unfortunately I finished up becoming in charge of a company that was putting tanks for personnel and for ... mines, I'm talking about, therefore there is a convulsion, you go there to do something and eventually do something different, so I had to upgrade straight away my knowledge in mines and explosive that is basic, also, subject for the officers.

Laying mines is one of the more dangerous pursuits of war, I think?

Landmines — they are for personnel and for tanks, different kinds of things, so in a matter of a few weeks I became very familiar with the technology of these things and since we had already had a few accidents, and soldiers being blown by defective mines or by malpractice in the, type of, priming these kinds of devices, I give instruction that only officers, including myself, to do the priming. So fortunately we didn't have any losses any further, as part of that type of practice, so I had to prepare this kind of perimeter, of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the period, and that was from about November 1941 when I could feel already that action was coming during the night. I could see already this type of inspecting patrols or what was the enemy coming and just tasting what were the forces, what were the protections, what were the boundary line, and the battle started in the last week or so of November and it was a succession of episode quite interesting from the military point of view.

The stronghold [was] where I was and that night I tried to close the gaps that were left open and, in the bombing of the stronghold by the Anglo-Saxon plane, all the stronghold fell and I kept left over in the minefield and behind the tanks. I finished up becoming a prisoner, having lost some of my people ... fortunately I was not injured and I became a prisoner. So I was a prisoner at the end of November 1941 and in the type of a few days — it was a very flexible kind of movement of troops and tanks and trucks and whatever — I was supposed to go to Egypt, but that night a group of English tanks, British tanks that came very close to us, and we were convinced that they were part of the Anglo forces. Eventually we discovered it was German and they started shooting and eventually I became free in the confusion but I was hit, in the shooting, and I still have one bullet in my body now, as part of that second, so I became now free again.

Now can I take you through this again, so that we are really clear about it.

Quite interesting.

You were sitting there in the Italian army surrounded by mines, you had a stronghold that was basically made of mines, that you had ...

With all the forces inside the stronghold.

The stronghold was of mines, protecting you?


And you noticed that there were gaps?

And these were gaps that we had left ourselves. It was part of the system, for which the gaps was only to allow the entry of personnel and trucks and whatever, but of course, since the danger of enemy was approaching, I had to go there and close the gaps during the night, so what I really was confronted with, was an attack on the stronghold. I was already on the periphery of the system when the tanks overrun the system. I finished to remain on the outside of the stronghold, just on the periphery of the mines.

So that was a bit safer than being on the inside?

Ah, not safer really, because the onslaught on these attacking forces were right there, so the safety was merely relative, I think, I was not killed by a miracle because there was shooting and a lot of people were lost, just on the stronghold, on the periphery of the minefield.

So you were taken?

... that's part of war.

So you were taken prisoner?

So I was taken prisoner and that is really flexible type of surrounding.

You mean it was chaotic?

Chaotic because just behind the tanks’ advance, advancing tanks, there were English troops and the people like me and my associates were in the minefield, they became part of the system — the Italian and the British in the same area and we didn't know what was happening until the solution or whatever of the result was done inside the stronghold. So eventually you realised that you were now prisoner.

And you were prisoner and you were being taken towards Egypt?

Taken towards Egypt as normally Egypt was part of the axis of the British forces and it was during one of these evenings that these British tanks were seen close to us and everybody was convinced that they were British, therefore even our soldiers, all the soldiers, were of the same opinion that they were looking at us as prisoners, they were happy, whereas in reality they were Germans shooting against us, so eventually in that utter confusion, I finished to become free again.

Free again, but with a bullet lodged near your spine?

That's it, that's it.

And it has never been taken out?

It's still there. In reality it took me another almost one month, one month and a half, because I was taken on a German ambulance and I was with them and moving in a kind of movement. There was shooting, as normally they do, in the battlefield and I was landed in Salum base. That was a stronghold toward, further toward, the Egyptian lines, and until all the system collapsed to Salum, Bardia and Tobruk, I became again prisoner. The development of episodes in the very volatile war in North Africa ... I became twice as a kind of element of the battle.

Where you were captured the second time?

Well that was at ...

You were captured at Tobruk? Not by Australians?

Could be, could be, because in Tobruk, I was sick and I was in the military hospital in Tobruk, it was an Italian military hospital when the system fell again and around there were certainly Australians because I remember when I came back here in ... I came to Australia in 1951 ... I still remember an officer, an engineer of the commission [Electricity Commissioin of NSW], Mr [Graham] Ogle, he told me that he had lost one leg, right in Tobruk, in the same period. So he was just playing with the idea that probably I shot him or he shot me, whatever, we became good friends but in reality that was the war and most likely, opposite me at the time, there were Australians.

There was also [Erwin] Rommel there at the time ... did you fight with Rommel's forces?

Well, the German forces were with us and in our division there were a certain kind of battery, guns, that were manned by Germans, so I made daily contact with them and that was the period when I had a chance to meet Rommel. Rommel was always a kind of general moving his rocket from [one] spot to the other. That was a very good, unforgettable, episode for me. I was in charge, as I mentioned, of a company that was anti-tank, anti-personnel mine, but I took the initiative of putting my own little stronghold inside and my own machinegun and all that kind of thing. I don't know if it was worthwhile, but I succeeded in shooting one airplane with my machine-gun, my improvised machine-guns there. That airplane, I think it was eventually found out, was a South African pilot, was captured by us, and I'm talking about much before the actual final battle. And as part of that action, and also the fact that I was able to close the gaps of the mines during the big battle, I received the silver medal.

Now this experience of having this absolutely chaotic thing going on, the opposite of all the order that you respected and had learned, did this change your opinion at all about war?

Well, gradually I tried to find some kind of solution, of trying to even guess at some solution. I don't think that really there could be a solution that will settle mankind history in a matter of 50 years. Well I'm glad that there has been a big change in the nuclear arsenal all over Europe, but I doubt if mankind will really become wiser in the future. I've got some doubt that that kind of experience that we have so far has endowed mankind with a certain way of behaving. I have some solution in my mind that possibly with the progress, with prosperity, with a good standard of living, with communication, with transportation, there will be a much greater integration of population in the world. I think this will be an important new chapter for the history of this planet.

You were also of course as a soldier trained to have an enemy, and to fight the enemy. Do you think that that way of looking at the world also has dangers in that that kind of mentality, that sees an enemy in what is other, can in fact be a part of the cause of war?

Well, if you see the mentality of humans — [if] there are two men there will always be a chance of rivalry and I don't think that you could just cancel the concept of hostility and war and the fact that for a millennium people have been trained to make war, to wage war. It takes a long process of changing mentality to destroy that attitude. To me, I have a tremendous amount of faith in the evolution of the races when, with the development of science and technology, we got more communication and more rapid movement of people for which there will be better understanding and building bridges of friendship. This is probably one of the solutions that could change the very old way of looking to war.

So your war ended with you being taken prisoner a second time, and what happened to you then?

Well, I really didn't know. Because when you are a prisoner, you live day to day. You don't know what the next ... you don't know what the enemy ... I mean the enemy is being painted by the other side always as a sort of devil that will probably shoot you or will not look after you or will starve you or whatever. Now I was very lucky that I finished in the hands of the British that, more or less, not withstanding with all the ethnics coming from Africa or from other parts of the world (the Gurkhas etc) they are pretty well civilised kind of characters. [laughs] So actually, the period that I spent between 1942, because eventually it was in 1942, early 1942 that Tobruk fell, and therefore that, I would say, was the third or fourth chapter of my life. There were a good, almost four years and a half that I spent between Egypt in the desert of Ismailia and eventually in India, in Dharmsala first and Yol, close to Punjab. That’s quite an interesting chapter of my existence, four year, five years spent, very usefully I would say, because I utilised every scrap ... every segment of time, I used very usefully for me.

So tell me about this four to five years in a British concentration camp, tell me about what you learned and if you could, at the same time, evaluate what it meant for you in the long term to have had that period?

Well first, for the first time I was really free. I mean, it's strange to say, being in prison you are free, because okay, you've got this surrounding barbed wire around you, but at least you are free to do what you like in this kind of space. I mean, no more somebody telling you to get up, do that, do that; you could even stay asleep if you like. As a matter of fact, we were blaming the Neapolitans, they were exercising with what we call the Neapolitan exercise of just sleeping. There were people sleeping all the day. It's called gymnastica de Neapolitana.

So after the military camp, the concentration camp was a picnic?

It was really, to me, it was a very good relief I would say, a very good relief. Now I could read, I could do my hobbies and, as a matter of fact, I did many things. I could learn much better a certain kind of trade, I became a good watchmaker, of course I also did some painting. I was able to group with artists, of course, in a different kind of officers’ group, there were some good artists, professors. I was teaching at university, there was a little university. For a period, they even tried to train me as an actor, because there was a certain type of group making a little play, so then they decided I was not good material for actor but there was many things happening. I did studying, I learned bridge, I became a good chess player.

When I think back, amazing, I did kind of models for University of Law hall [Lahore University], for a hydro-electric scheme, and a project in architecture. I mean you could utilise your time in doing that, but I had a good chance of learning English, because I knew already some scrap of English, because I studied when I was a kid, but certainly I could read a lot of magazines, books, so I could fill 24 hours interestingly in many ... to me it has been quite an interesting period of my life.

Did you have enough to eat?

Oh plenty, absolutely, plenty. It was a pity to conceive it to the end of the day. There were bins full of bread that nobody ate, I mean, we had sub-contractors, there were Indians of course, and we were never ... I mean, we could buy anything we wanted, whether the type of token money, because doing my work at university then I finished to get really solid rupees, so in no time I was doing machine to do spaghetti, I was doing machine to do buttons, so I became a little millionaire with really solid rupees, so that it was a pretty interesting period of my life. I wish I could have written a little bit of diary in period; I could write some very good books.

So why did you want to escape?

Well, I knew that was just the parenthesis. As a matter of fact, any idea of escaping was only at the very very first beginning when you have still that kind of belicose attitude. I mean, I tried to escape early in the period because I felt that now is the time to do something. Possibly you have to try to escape — it's part of the duty of any officer. I mean, the first thing to do is you fight. If you are not killed that means you have to do something else. If you are a prisoner you do something else, so the idea of escaping to me just was normal. It was a very stupid idea, incidentally, because there was no question of even proportioning the temerity and faculty of the enterprise. I mean, to escape from northern India and reach the boundary toward Burma, following the Ganges for which we had only a very sketchy map, apart from the fact that we had to camouflage ourselves as Indian or whatever, but the question of dreaming, I think, is typical of the period, of being young first and second, because you are totally persuaded that you have to do something as part of your commitment for which you have been educated. That’s the power of the brainwashing that you should never underestimate ... [laughs] ...

So you did try to escape?

Yes, I did try to escape ...

So what happened?

Well, I was lucky because to escape — the escape it must be done at night-time with the agreement of the Indian guards and ... we tried to manipulate the Indians. If you don't know how they made it, a kind of barbed wire across two lines, the Indian guards are in the middle, so you try to bribe them in one way, they say, ‘okay, yes,’ then you go and cut the first and then you cut to the second one and eventually when you are on the other side, the bastards start to scream his nut, eventually there is a revolution and you escape in the jungle and eventually they come to catch one, they take one behind you, and eventually we couldn't do a thing about it. They were the Gurkhas behind us and we were lucky not to be ... I was myself with another officer and we were not shot but, subsequently, similar cases happened that were shot, so I was lucky again.

So the guard that you thought was on your side raised the alarm?

Yes, we were very naive really, very naive, but I mean you can't escape from India. But it was worth trying, I think it's part of the philosophy, the mentality of the period and the age, I could see that it was fully justified.

[end of tape]

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